An introduction to a short gem of a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
‘The Eagle’ is one of Tennyson’s shortest poems – probably the shortest of his famous poems. (We include it in our pick of the best short Victorian poems.) Running to just six lines, the poem seems to require no additional analysis; but for those who are interested, we append to the poem (below) a few thoughts on its meaning and language.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
The poem, among other things, is a masterpiece of syntax. The simplicity of ‘he stands’, two simple words concluding the first three-line stanza, perfectly captures the majesty of the bird of prey as he stands on the top of the rock, surrounded by the clear blue of the sky, seeming to stand so tall as to be in touching distance of the sun.
From his high vantage point, even the vast sea beneath him seems to be small and insignificant, crawling and wrinkled like a worm or a snake writhing on the ground (‘wrinkled’, by the way, brilliantly picking up on ‘Ring’d’ in the previous line, and dwindling the hard monosyllable into the altogether more feeble dying-off of ‘wrinkled’). It is in this second stanza that the three-line structure really comes into effect: there is something jarring about the way the second stanza suddenly ends with the bird swooping down, presumably to catch its prey. A three-line stanza but only a two-stanza poem? The form prepares us for a third, but none is forthcoming: like the suddenness of the eagle’s movement, the poem rapidly comes to a close.
If you liked this little analysis of ‘The Eagle’, learn more about Tennyson in our post celebrating his interesting life and work.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Portrait of Lord Alfred Tennyson by John Everett Millais, Wikimedia Commons.